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Chapter Five
Bleeding Kansas


Tragic Prelude
"Tragic Prelude," John Steuart Curry mural in the Kansas state house
depicting the dominating figure of John Brown against a territorial Kansas background.

Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection




John Brown Jr.
John Brown Jr.
The year 1856 began optimistically for the Brown family with the election of John Brown Jr. as a delegate to the free-state Topeka Legislature on January 15. But as pro-slavery forces viciously murdered another free-state man, and President Franklin Pierce spoke out against the free-state element and in support of the pro-slavery legislature, the situation quickly began to unravel. When the free-state legislature met in March, John Jr. was the only delegate to oppose a conciliatory resolution that delayed the effective date of any legislation until Kansas became a state. “To those who contemplate coming I would if I could, say to them by all means come thoroughly armed with the most efficient weapons they can obtain, and bring plenty of ammunition.” – Letter, John Brown Jr. to Friend Louisa, March 29, 1856,
Boyd B. Stutler Collection

In April at Dutch Henry's Tavern, pro-slavery Judge Sterling G. Cato opened the spring term of the U.S. District Court for the area that included Pottawatomie and announced his intent to enforce the laws of the pro-slavery legislature. Concerned about the possible outcome of the court session, as well as a possible invasion of Missourians, about three dozen local free-state residents organized a defensive militia group known as the Pottawatomie Rifles, with John Jr. as captain. The company appeared at court and presented the judge with resolutions opposed to the pro-slavery legislature, but no violence occurred. Violence did erupt by the end of the month, however, with the wounding of a pro-slavery sheriff. Tensions escalated through a series of incidents, and toward the end of May, pro-slavery militia gathered outside Lawrence and sacked the town. The Pottawatomie Rifles, including John Jr. and Jason, joined by their father, four brothers, and brother-in-law, headed for Lawrence only to be met part way by a messenger who told them that Lawrence had fallen without resistance but the border ruffians had left after looting the town, destroying the news presses, and burning the hotel. John Brown and sons at Lawrence
The arrival of John Brown and his sons
at Lawrence, Kansas, in 1856.
Drawing by Von Gottschalck.

"I found my father and one brother, William, lying dead in the road, . . .; I saw my other brother lying dead on the ground, . . .; his fingers were cut off, and his arms were cut off; his head was cut open; there was a hole in his breast. William’s head was cut open, and a hole was in his jaw, as though it was made by a knife, and a hole was also in his side. My father was shot in the forehead and stabbed in the breast.” – John Doyle affidavit, 1856, Special Congressional Investigative Committee In the aftermath, John Brown decided a blow against the pro-slavery side was needed. On May 23, Brown; his sons Owen, Frederick, Salmon, and Oliver; Henry Thompson and two other men departed for Pottawatomie. Dragging several pro-slavery settlers from their cabins, Brown’s group brutally killed Allen Wilkinson, William Sherman, and James, Drury, and William Doyle and mutilated their bodies. John Brown committed none of the murders himself, which apparently were carried out by Henry Thompson, Theodore Weiner, Owen Brown, and possibly Salmon Brown. However, the elder Brown oversaw their acts and acknowledged afterwards, “I approved of it.” After they were through, the group rejoined the Pottawatomie Rifles.

John Jr. and Jason were distressed by news of the murders. John Jr. resigned his captaincy and left “in a very dejected state of mind bordering on a mental breakdown,” he and Jason staying the night at their aunt and uncle Adair’s cabin while pro-slavery forces scouted the countryside looking for the Browns. The two were soon arrested, and John Jr., his mental condition already stressed, received such ill-treatment that he went insane for a short time. According to Jason, at one point John “fancied himself commander of the camp, [and] was shrieking military orders, jumping up and down and casting himself about” (quoted in Villard, 195). Jason was released in June, but his brother was held until September because of his political activities.

Samuel Adair's cabin
Samuel Adair's cabin
Free State Prisoners
Free State Prisoners, including John Brown Jr.,
Published in Leslie's, October 4, 1856.
“The next day we were placed in the custody of Captain Walker, of United States Cavalry, a Southerner who himself tied my arms back in such a manner as to produce the most intense suffering. Giving the other end of the rope to a sergeant, I was placed a little in advance of the column headed by Captain Walker, and to avoid being trampled by the horses which had been ordered to trot, I was driven at this pace in the hot sun to Osawatomie, a distance of about nine miles. The rope had been tied so tightly as to stop circulation. Instead of loosening the rope when we arrived at camp, a mile south of town, no change was made in it through that day, all of the following night, nor until about noon the next day. By that time my arms and hands had swollen to nearly double size, and turned black as if mortified. On removal of the rope, which in consequence of the swelling had sunken deeply, a ring of the skin came off. The scar, slavery’s bracelet, I still wear after twenty-seven years.”
– John Brown Jr., 1883,
clipping in Boyd B. Stutler Collection

Henry Clay Pate
Henry Clay Pate
Meanwhile, John Brown and his men joined Captain Samuel Shore and his volunteers on June 1 to march on Black Jack Springs, where a large group of Missouri militia was camped. The next day, this force engaged the Missourians, under the command of Henry Clay Pate. After several hours, Pate and his men surrendered. Brown intended to exchange his prisoners for the release of free-state prisoners, including his two sons. Three days after his victory, however, the Missourians were freed and Brown’s group was broken up by U.S. troops under Col. Edwin Sumner, under orders “to disperse all armed bodies assembled without authority.” Edwin V. Sumner
Edwin V. Sumner
during the Civil War

Kansas was the scene of much violence over the next few months, with both pro-slavery and free-state groups guilty of numerous instances of robbery and murder. During much of the summer, John Brown apparently was inactive, instead tending the ailing Henry Thompson and Salmon Brown, wounded during or after Black Jack, and Owen Brown, sick with fever. In early August, Brown took several members of his family to Nebraska, where he left them, and returned to Kansas with son Frederick. Shortly thereafter, John Brown prepared a “Covenant,” an agreement of the men serving under him to serve as a volunteer force of Kansas Regulars “for the maintainance [sic] of the rights & liberties of the Free-State Citizens of Kansas.”

By the end of August, John Brown was encamped near Osawatomie, where an attack by a large pro-slavery force was expected. On August 30, Frederick Brown was shot and killed on the road near Samuel Adair’s cabin by Martin White, who was traveling with the Missourians. Alarm spread through Osawatomie as the pro-slavery group under Gen. John W. Reid approached the town. The much smaller contingent of free-state men was able to delay Reid’s taking of the town for a short period before Reid’s men overwhelmed Brown and his men, took possession of Osawatomie, and burned the town. Accounts from both sides exaggerated the number of casualties from the Battle of Osawatomie. Five free-state men are known to have been killed, while an indeterminant number of pro-slavery men died, possibly in the range of ten.

The Soldiers Monument
The Soldiers Monument, Osawatomie, Kansas,
dedicated in 1877 to John Brown
and the men killed during the Battle of Osawatomie.

John W. Geary
John W. Geary
during the Civil War
The arrival of a new governor, John W. Geary, in early September instituted a relatively more peaceful situation in Kansas. John Brown Jr. was released after three months of captivity, but the cabins that he and his brother Jason had built had been destroyed in the aftermath of the Pottawatomie Massacre. John Brown with sons John Jr. and Jason and their families, and son Owen, who had returned to Kansas, headed north out of the territory in October. By December 1856, John Brown was in Ohio visiting relatives.


Primary Documents:

Letter, Wealthy Brown to Louisa C. Barber, March 23, 1856
Letter, John Brown Jr. to Friend Louisa, March 29, 1856
Letter, John Brown Jr. to Frederick Douglass' Paper, April 4, 1856
Affidavits of Mahala and John Doyle, James Harris, and Louisa Jane Wilkinson on the Pottawatomie Massacre, June 1856
"The Voice of Kansas-Let the South Respond,"De Bow's Review, August 1856
"Articles of Enlistment and By Laws of the Kansas Regulars," 1856 (from Sanborn)
Letter, John Brown to Mary Ann Brown, October 11, 1856
Pamphlet, John Brown, as viewed by H. Clay Pate, 1859
Clipping, Jason Brown to the Akron Beacon, January 21, 1880 (on Pottawatomie Massacre)
Clipping, John Brown Jr. to the Cleveland Leader, November 16, 1883 (on Pottawatomie Massacre)
Clipping, August Bondi to the Kansas Free Press, December 1883
Clipping, August Bondi to the Salina Herald, January 24, 1884
Manuscript, Owen Brown on leaving Kansas in 1856, April 26, 1888
Clipping, Owen Brown on the Fight at Black Jack, Springfield Republican, January 14, 1889
Letter, Salmon Brown to William Connelley, May 28, 1913 (on Pottawatomie Massacre)

Secondary Sources:

"John Brown of Osawatomie," by David N. Utter
Reminiscences of Old John Brown,by G. W. Brown


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